oregon biennial

IT’S BIG. VERY BIG. And if you want to take the whole thing in, Matt Stangel writes for ArtsWatch readers, you’re going to have to ramble all over the state of Oregon. In his opening report, Portland2016: Disjecta goes gigantic, Stangel points out the sheer massiveness of this year’s Disjecta Oregon biennial art show. Curated by Michelle Grabner, who was also co-curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, this latest Oregon biennial of contemporary art takes the word “Oregon” seriously, spreading the art around to 25 spaces, 15 of them outside of Portland, in locations including the Schneider Museum of Art in Ashland, Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, in Pendleton, La Grande, Astoria, and elsewhere. And Grabner mixes things up: several Portland artists showing in venues across the state, several state artists bringing their work to Portland. What’s more, many of the artists have created pieces specifically for the spaces they were assigned.

"The Silva Field Guide to Birds of a Parallel Future," digital image of imaginary avians, dimensions variable, 2014–2015, Portland2016/ Image courtesy of the artist, Rick Silva.

“The Silva Field Guide to Birds of a Parallel Future,” digital image of imaginary avians, dimensions variable, 2014–2015, Portland2016/ Image courtesy of the artist, Rick Silva.

Even in Portland, you’ll need to travel to several venues to see what’s in the biennial. But a single visit to Disjecta’s home space in North Portland will grant you a look at one piece of work by each of the 106 artists whose studios Grabner visited – a decision viewed as inclusive by some onlookers and needlessly unfocused by others. Stangel writes: “Though a bit overwhelming, bringing everyone together in one place seems to be a practical remedy to the geographical largeness of this year’s exhibition—which presents a sizable travel ask of any one person who wants to see everything. So, this bouquet of artwork serves as an invitation to find something you like and, perhaps, explore it further at a satellite location.”


Well, THIS is interesting. We can expect a very different Portland 2012 Biennial next year from Disjecta. Why? Because the 2010 Biennial was curated by Cris Moss, curator of Linfield College’s gallery, and the 2012 will be curated by Prudence Roberts. As the press release puts it, “The curator’s vision is a key component of Disjecta’s Biennial. Each incarnation is a fully realized exhibition that speaks to the strengths and interests of an invited guest curator.” And this is interesting because it is honest and up-front about the fact that ANY selection is subjective (in spite of protests to the contrary that one hears). So the selection of the curator, then, becomes all important. Is it ever otherwise? Did anything Bonnie Laing-Malcomsen selected for the CNAA’s surprise you given her background (especially at OCAC)? Maybe the selection of Susie Lee surprised me. A little.

I’m reminded of an episode in Portland art history when critic and writer and curator Lucy Lippard was asked by the Portland Center for the Visual Arts to curate a show. An open call was put out and Lippard viewed hundreds (probably thousands) of slides, then came to the Northwest and visited dozens of studios all over Oregon and Washington. Paul Sutinen, artist and at the time critic for the Willamette Week, recalls that anticipation on the part of artists in waiting for her final selection, was high. The expectation was that Lippard would embrace the kind of art that she’d been writing about and thinking about in New York and elsewhere. But she came to the Northwest looking for something different. And in many ways, she found what she was looking for for In Touch: Nature, Ritual and Sensuous Art from the Northwest (does the title give that away?).

While we’re talking about history, it is worth mentioning that the Oregon Biennial was, for many years, the project of the Portland Art Museum, as befits the main visual arts institution in the region. The museum dumped the Biennial project in favor or the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards, focusing on a handful of artists rather than a major survey, and topped off by the Arlene Schnitzer prize for one of those artists. Was this to extend its reach and relevance beyond Oregon? Was it too much work (requiring too many resources) to curate and hang a massive survey show? Regardless, the net result was that there was no more biannual survey and it was missed by artists and art watchers.

Along came alt-space Disjecta who lined up Moss to curate the Portland2010 Biennial that I (and I wasn’t alone) thought was a pretty good picture of what this year’s Biennial (in its press release) claims to aspire to, “a major survey of work by artists that are defining and advancing the visual arts scene of Portland.”

I do wonder, transparency about subjectivity aside, if rotating curators won’t just give a wildly divergent view every two years of just what kinds of artists are “defining and advancing the visual arts scene of Portland.” And I’m grappling with whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Roberts as former curator of American art at the Portland Art Museum (1987 to 2000), was around for many an Oregon Biennial. She has continued to curate and contribute essays for exhibitions at the Center on Contemporary Art, Seattle, the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, and The Art Gym at Marylhurst University.

Meanwhile, this is your call, artists, to be afforded one of those studio visits from Roberts for your chance to be included in the Biennial. Here’s the info:

Interested artists who have lived in Oregon as a primary residence for the past two years may submit qualifications through CaFE™ (www.callforentry.org). The deadline for submissions is 11:59PM, MDT (Mountain Daylight Time), August 12, 2011. All materials must be submitted through CaFE™ to be considered. Roberts will conduct studio visits with artists and announce her selections in early Fall 2011. Selected artists will receive a stipend, which may be used to create new work for the exhibition. Disjecta anticipates that Roberts will view and consider the work of more than 300 artists.
Portland2012 is supported in party by The Ford Family Foundation and the Oregon Arts Commission.

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